Based on knowledge of Bach’s life through his letters, and through commentary by reputable sources on these letters and other documents written by Bach family members, employers, students, friends, acquaintances, admirers, and by Bach himself; and based on my familiarity with his music, and familiarity with impressions and knowledge of Bach by people who knew his music during his lifetime (again, via letters and commentary), and through my own musical insights and those of others concerning the man and his music, there are a few observations and obvious or justifiable conclusions, which, whether explicitly illuminated or tacitly assumed by music lovers and scholars, are mentioned here because of their relevance to the following discussion.
Bach was a man of extremely rare creativity, enhanced and made more obvious in his life by the application of intelligence perhaps even rarer. Intelligence may be measured or perceived, but creativity is far more subjective, being subject to the unique expressive needs of the personality as well as to the insights and perspicacity of the perceiver of (Bach’s) creation – exactly, precisely, and personally apt expression-creation.
Aside from these attributes shaping his personal musical expression, they integrated with other influences such as his family musical heritage and the expert guidance of capable musicians, creating a situation of total immersion and involvement in music as a child, a situation which he helped sustain at least as early as age 12 or 13 (at which time for example, he was taking initiative to copy music for his own edification, enjoyment, and fulfillment of his passion to excel and express himself in music1). Thus it may be assumed that Bach had an extraordinarily sensitive ear. Moreover, there is nothing anywhere to suggest to modern musicians that Bach had anything other than the finest ear. On occasion he was chastised by his musically conservative church employers for writing harmonies that were difficult to comprehend or appreciate. And of course, Bach’s personal (musical) expression is not universally a vicarious fulfillment of others’ personal expression. “To each his own”, which is cause for the utter diversity within commonality – unity, really – of consciousness, or still more accurately, spirit. However, these issues were not and are not related to subtleties of tuning, but of composition – a factor which will be brought to bear later in this discussion.
Bach studied organ building and derived part of his income and musical reputation by inspecting organs, which included testing for intonation. In as much as some of these organs were in the more prestigious churches, it is reasonable to assume he was extremely respected in this field. There are a number of documents supporting this conclusion. 2
Bach was a string player and harpsichordist, both activities requiring regular instrument tuning if a musician was to play consistently in tune, which endeavor depended then as now on the music being played.;it was a matter of course that practical musicians would be responsible for tuning their own keyboard as well as stringed instruments. Although stringed instrument playing utilizes flexible intonation from a harmonic or “vertical” perspective, in particular it affords opportunity for greater expressivity of intonation than a keyboard in a melodic context. Keyboards demonstrate expressive intonation more readily in a harmonic and vertical context. These two senses of intonation – melodic and harmonic – are not only subjective, but for the keyboard, have severe constraints precisely because tuning is not a spontaneous musical expression, but must be planned and executed prior to playing.
Furthermore, what may sound to one person’s ear as exquisitely expressive intonation (not necessarily beautiful, as anger is expressed in some music, yet it is not “beautiful”) may to another person sound out of tune. And melodic intonation may sound extremely out of tune when perceived vertically with three or more similarly tuned juxtaposed melodies. Bach is reputed to be a master of both polyphonic and homophonic writing…
Thus, prior to acceptance of equal temperament, tuning of all keyboards was a most scrutinized activity and it is reasonable to assume that Bach, being a fine, if not expert violinist as well as one of the most respected organ inspectors, harpsichordists, and organists, during his lifetime, was sensitive to intonation both melodically and harmonically.
And yet…and yet on at least one occasion Bach teased his good friend and colleague Gottfried Silbermann, considered the “greatest organ builder at the time"3, for deviating from Bach’s tuning expectation, saying “You tune the organ in the manner you please, and I play the organ in the key I please."4 Silbermann was disappointed that his friend was not planning on playing or had not played in keys that showed his tuning to advantage. Bach must certainly have been aware of this. So, we have here a basis for Bach desiring and appreciating the tuning work of some organists and averring that of others. All these observations suggest that Bach did indeed have a sensitive ear, and it would not be out of the realm of possibility to conclude that his ear was as sensitive to intonation as any person’s had been in the history of western music. When this conclusion is made in awareness of Bach as the creative genius described above, it appears unlikely that he did not desire a system of tuning that would obviate playing in certain keys that provided greatest expression at the expense of playing in other keys, not to mention eliminate coordinating performances with his or someone else’s organ builder or keyboard tuner.
The pieces of the Well Tempered Clavier are harmonically arranged not for musical efficacy or expression, but for the sake of presenting an organized approach to learning the keyboard and composition: they are arranged as a list, as a reference work. Bach adheres, without exception, to the order of keys from this perspective.
It is likely Bach was an excellent harpsichord tuner, however I have yet to read that he taught this skill or engaged in it to his great pleasure or that of his patrons or employers! If he did spend time tuning, it was apparently not before an audience or student who remembered the activity as a privilege or something worthy of commentary, judging by lack of such in any sources with which I am familiar. Ordinarily, keyboard tuning for the most expressive intonation is a time consuming activity when music is to be played in keys that are only “distantly” related, for example, related by the circle of fifths beyond three generations (dominant of a dominant of a dominant, if that) and played in keys other than the relative minor. Such an activity, prosaic and of enormous opportunity cost for the counterpoint or keyboard student eager to learn something more valuable, would not fit into the kind of lesson for which Bach was loved, respected, renowned, and sought. Yet we have a documented anecdote that Bach on occasion played in one sitting for one of his pupils the entirety of the Well Tempered Clavier.
Given all the above observations and conclusions of Bach’s character and personal attributes particularly suited to a musician of the highest order, how on earth was this to have been accomplished to his pleasure or satisfaction, particularly in the setting of a lesson, where tuning for unrelated keys was not on the menu?
There is but one possibility: he had devised some kind of tuning system for his personal if not public use that was acceptable for playing in all keys. The evidence for this is even more compelling when one considers that in his compositions he expressed implications of his spiritual nature, beliefs, insights, and in particular, his pafor aspecof spirituality which might be described as fringing on the mystic and expressive of mysticism. Bear in mind that Bach was known for stating, and more than once, that his skills were obtainable by anyone who would exert the effort of acquisition. This is the statement of a man who many times desired that others, in particular employers, recognize and compensate him for his vastly superior skills, and who knows and recognizes his own hard work! What could impel such effort – and given from such an early age? A desire to effortlessly create without hindrance or encumbrance.
Of course, many people want this. What then could impel such effort for the sake of manifesting creativity? We are here discussing the deepest driving force of personality, manifested in Bach as we now can see, from a very early age: it is his desire – demonstrated through his counterpoint wherein new material is derived from previously heard material (thematic variation and fugal writing are shining examples of this), his increasing interest in what can be aptly described as the esoteric aspect of musical devices (fugal writing initiated for its own sake, rather than the sake of musical expression or imminent link to livelihood such as a commission or an employer would provide), and in particular towards the end of his life, his desire to tie up loose ends, so to speak – collecting and organizing his works (the Well Tempered being another shining example) which task also demonstrates a desire for all inclusiveness in that nothing is without the fold [in quantum physics, separate from the (unified) field]; nothing is separate or created separately from anything else…
Bach sees or desires to manifest in his musical composition, the truth of astonishing creativity and diversity within utter unity, that the whole is in fact, derived from the parts, that the parts are in fact, derived from the whole. And for this artistic endeavor, he desires absolute control – no, no…not so much control as ease of manipulating the elements and features of composition such that his creativity, his intuition, his deepest passions, perceptions, consciousness, are expressed without so much as the blink of an eye.
As much as Bach used to find his skills convenient and helpful in the more practical matters of a musician’s livelihood, in his Book II of the Well Tempered, comprised of longer pieces and assembled with perhaps greater deliberation, these skills can be seen as a means of serving his deeper drives. From this perspective may also be seen the tremendous value to Bach of a system of tuning that does not jar the soul when music journeys to seemingly far away places harmonically, contrapuntally, artistically, spiritually. Bach wants liberty to express that we are always home.
Researching the myriad tuning systems that Bach might have used at one time or another is well beyond the scope of this paper, and is productively written on by others expert in the field. What I have illuminated is a basis for choosing a tuning system that Bach would have used. I do not propose further descriptive details of what system he used…the paramount and determining factor of this choice is that whatever he used ultimately served his drive to express his deepest sense of who he is – which obviously went far beyond Lutheranism. In this, he is of course absolutely the same as everyone else. “The truth will out” – it cannot be concealed. There is in fact, nothing else we could possibly express; how could it be otherwise?